Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement

Article metrics


Although a majority of US citizens think that the president and Congress should address global warming, only a minority think it should be a high priority1. Previous research has shown that four key beliefs about climate change—that it is real, human caused, serious and solvable—are important predictors of support for climate policies2. Other research has shown that organized opponents of climate legislation have sought to undermine public support by instilling the belief that there is widespread disagreement among climate scientists about these points3—a view shown to be widely held by the public1. Here we examine if this misperception is consequential. We show that the misperception is strongly associated with reduced levels of policy support and injunctive beliefs (that is, beliefs that action should be taken to mitigate global warming). The relationship is mediated by the four previously identified key beliefs about climate change, especially people’s certainty that global warming is occurring. In short, people who believe that scientists disagree on global warming tend to feel less certain that global warming is occurring, and show less support for climate policy. This suggests the potential importance of correcting the widely held public misperception about lack of scientific agreement on global warming.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Conceptual model.


  1. 1

    Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Smith, N. Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in May 2011 (Yale Univ. and George Mason Univ., Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2011).

  2. 2

    Krosnick, J. A., Holbrook, A. L., Lowe, L. & Visser, P. S. The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agendas: A study of popular concern about global warming. Climatic Change 77, 7–43 (2006).

  3. 3

    Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. M. Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 465, 686–687 (2010).

  4. 4

    Anderegg, W. R. L. Moving beyond scientific agreement. Climatic Change 101, 331–337 (2010).

  5. 5

    Doran, P. T. & Zimmerman, M. K. Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. EOS Trans. AGU 90, (2009).

  6. 6

  7. 7

    Burkemann, O. Memo exposes Bush’s new green strategy. The Guardian (4 March 2003); available via

  8. 8

    Revkin, A. C. Bush aide softened greenhouse gas links to global warming. The New York Times (8 June 2005); available via

  9. 9

    Boykoff, M. T. & Boykoff, J. M. Balance as bias: Global warming and the US prestige press. Glob. Environ. Change 14, 125–136 (2004).

  10. 10

    Malka, A., Krosnick, J. A. & Langer, G. The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: Trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Anal. 29, 633–647 (2009).

  11. 11

    Miller, J. D. Public understanding of, and attitudes toward, scientific research: What we know and what we need to know. Public Understanding Sci. 13, 273–294 (2004).

  12. 12

    Leiserowitz, A., Smith, N. & Marlon, J. Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change (Yale Univ., Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2010).

  13. 13

    Petty, R. E. & Wegener, D. T. in Dual-Process Theories in Social Psychology (eds Chaiken, S. & Trope, Y.) (Guilford Press, 1999).

  14. 14

    McCright, A. M. & Dunlap, R. E. Anti-reflexivity: The American conservative movement’s success in undermining climate science and policy. Theory Cult. Soc. 27, 100–133 (2010).

  15. 15

    Leiserowitz, A. Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values. Climatic Change 77, 45–72 (2006).

  16. 16

    Kahan, D. M., Jenkins-Smith, H. & Braman, D. Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. J. Risk Res. 14, 147–174 (2011).

  17. 17

    Kunda, Z. The case for motivated reasoning. Psycholog. Bull. 108, 480–498 (1990).

  18. 18

    Munor, G., Leary, S. & Lasane, T. Between a rock and a hard place: Biased assimilation of scientific information in the face of commitment. North Am. J. Psychol. 6, 431–444 (2004).

  19. 19

    Wood, B. D. & Vedlitz, A. Issue definition, information processing, and the politics of global warming. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 51, 552–568 (2007).

  20. 20

    IPCC Climate Change 2007: Climate Change Impacts. Summary for Policymakers (World Meteorological Organization, 2007).

  21. 21

    Jacques, P. J., Dunlap, R. E. & Freeman, M. The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism. Environ. Polit. 17, 349–385 (2008).

  22. 22

    Hoggan, J. & Littlemore, R. Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Greystone Books, 2009).

  23. 23

    Lakoff, G. Don’t Think of an Elephant (Chelea Green Publishing, 2004).

  24. 24

    Schwarz, N., Sanna, L. J., Skurnik, I. & Yoon, C. Metacognitive experiences and the intricacies of setting people straight: Implications for debiasing and public information campaigns. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 39, 127–161 (2007).

  25. 25

    Hornik, R. Public Health Communication: Evidence for Behavior Change (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2002).

  26. 26

    Callegaro, M. & Disogra, C. Computing response metrics for online panels. Public Opin. Quart. 72, 1008–1029 (2008).

  27. 27

    Chang, L. & Krosnick, J. A. National surveys via RDD telephone interviewing versus the Internet. Publ. Opin. Quart. 73, 641–678 (2009).

  28. 28

    Preacher, K. J. & Hayes, A. F. Asymptotic and resampling strategies for assessing and comparing indirect effects in multiple mediator models. Behav. Res. Methods 40, 879–891 (2008).

  29. 29

    MacKinnon, D. P. Introduction to Statistics Mediation Analysis (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2008).

Download references


The study was funded by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, the Pacific Foundation, the Grantham Foundation, Prism Public Affairs and a Health Policy Investigator Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors wish to acknowledge T. Myers at George Mason University for her help with statistical analyses.

Author information

E.W.M. and D.D. conceptualized the research question. D.D. conducted data analysis and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. X.Z. provided statistical assistance. E.W.M., C.R-R., X.Z and A.L. wrote and revised parts of the manuscript. A.L., E.W.M. and C.R-R. designed and conducted the national survey.

Correspondence to Edward W. Maibach.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading